By Christopher Elliott
In a perfect world, caring employees would quickly fix your customer service problems.
We don’t live in a perfect world.
That’s the reason I started writing Problem Solved, a customer service advice column. The premise is simple: Every week, I take a seemingly unsolvable customer service problem — and solve it.
And there are a lot of problems. The Federal Trade Commission received 3.2 million complaints in 2019, an increase of 200,000 complaints from a year before. It’s just a small fraction of the consumer problems in North America.
The steps to fixing a customer service problem are simple:
- Read the fine print before you buy.
- Contact the company and go follow their guidelines.
- Appeal your case.
- Find an outside advocate.
- Use the “nuclear” option or go to court.
If you follow the process, chances are you’ll never have to contact me or darken the door of a courtroom. So before we go on, a word of advice: Please don’t skip any of the following steps:
- Know what you’re buying
Sounds obvious, right? But it isn’t. Only 1 percent of consumers read the terms and conditions of their purchase, according to a recent survey by ProPrivacy.com. Lawyers hide things in the fine print. You may be giving up your rights to a refund or to return the product if you aren’t happy.
Unfortunately, ignorance of the rules isn’t a defense. By checking the “I accept” button or signing your name, you’ve agreed to the rules — whether you’ve read and understood them or not. So before you sign on the dotted line, read the fine print. Then read it again. You can thank me later.
Even though these agreements are what’s known as adhesion contracts, meaning you have no ability to modify the terms of the agreement, it’s better to understand what you are accepting before going any further.
Of course, the best way to solve a consumer problem is to ensure you never have one. So the key to fixing a customer service problem is to familiarize yourself with the product or service you’re buying — particularly the fine print.
- Get in touch with the company
Step two — also frequently overlooked — is giving the company a chance to fix the problem. That means returning to the store or going through the customer service department. In at least half of the cases I receive as a consumer advocate, the consumer has not given the company a chance to make things right.
The best way to do that is in writing. Why? Because you have a record of the grievance, and you can forward that record to a supervisor, a lawyer, or a consumer advocate. By the way, time is not on your side. The sooner you contact the company, the better your chances of a successful resolution. Warranties have limits, and after several years, companies delete customer records.
- Send a brief, polite appeal to a supervisor
The system isn’t perfect. Sometimes a legitimate complaint will slip through the cracks. By this time, many customers have started a social-media shaming campaign, which may ultimately hurt their chances of getting the resolution they want. But you still have another remedy: Escalating your case to a manager or a supervisor.
Companies often train their call center employees to tell you there’s no supervisor — but there’s always a supervisor. My nonprofit consumer advocacy site publishes the names, numbers and email addresses of the managers online. Send a friendly appeal to one of them and include the company’s previous written correspondence, especially your customer ID and your order number. That will help them find the relevant transaction and hopefully fix it.
- Find outside help
If the company won’t help you, it’s time to enlist an outside group’s help. A neutral third party can help you break an impasse if the company doesn’t fix your customer service problem. Outside groups can include medical advocates, media-based advocates such as a TV station’s “On Your Side” segment, or a nonprofit organization like mine, Elliott Advocacy.
You’ll want to approach an advocate in the same way you’ve gone through channels so far. Send a short email outlining your problem. You may need to fill out a form to receive help.
Don’t overload the organization with information. Just give it the facts and let them ask for more information if needed.
Many aggrieved customers like to write lengthy emails describing how the failed customer service interaction made them feel. Please resist that temptation. It lessens the credibility of your case.
- Take it to a higher authority
If all else fails, contact law enforcement authorities or an attorney and go to court if necessary to resolve your customer service problem. Before you do, there’s one last solution, which I like to call the nuclear option. If you paid by credit card, you may be able to dispute your charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. Contact your bank or credit card for details. If your bank sides with you, you’ll receive a provisional credit, which is made permanent when the dispute closes.
You can get law enforcement involved without having to go to court. For example, if you have a complaint about an airline ticket, you can file a grievance with the Department of Transportation and, if that fails, sue the airline in small claims court as long as the amount of your claim is eligible, which depends on the state. You can represent yourself in small claims court, so there’s no need to contact an attorney. For other types of complaints, a letter from a lawyer might be all it takes to get the company to do the right thing. But in the end, you may have to go to court to get a wrong righted.
How can Problem Solved help?
Problem Solved is the product of decades of consumer advocacy. I began helping fix customer service problems in the late ‘90s. I contacted airlines, hotels and travel agencies and negotiated refunds on behalf of aggrieved customers.
In 2010, I wrote a book called Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals. I began to receive all kinds of requests for help — and Problem Solved was born.
I started to receive so many requests for help that I founded a nonprofit organization called Elliott Advocacy that helps people with their consumer problems every day. Our mission is to empower consumers to solve their problems and help those who can’t. So if you’ve run into a problem that you can’t solve, please contact us. My advocacy team and I will do our best to help you.
Problem Solved doesn’t cover every case I receive. Instead, I write about problems that affect many consumers and offer helpful consumer advice for everyone. The featured cases are always fascinating and comment-worthy, but they also help you become a smarter consumer.
By following my advice for fixing any customer service problem, you’ll probably never need my consumer organization’s services. Even if you forget everything I’ve said and only remember step 1 — to read the terms and conditions — you’ll avoid 90 percent of all customer service problems.
But just in case, I’m always here for you.
Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). Elliott Advocacy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. Get help by contacting him at www.elliott.org/help